The Chameleon Complex—Chapter 42 Taco Tim

When writing letters to New Mexico, I discovered that my public voice was sardonic and insensitive; it was not the voice of a gentleman. I thought it was dark comedy, or perhaps roast comedy—a mocking counter to civil humor—but was I, in fact, a bully? Like most bullies, I either felt victimized, lashed back and felt justified doing it, or I was “just kidding” at someone else’s expense to build myself up or solidify my clique.

      But at least my snarky public voice kept me safe from rejection, because it was an act and not I. See? I was crazy like an artist, not like a clown or psychotic street person. My public voice kept me safe by hiding my authentic self. A rejection of my public persona was not a rejection of me but of my art, the character I played. Did Jack Nicholson get upset when someone didn’t like R. P. McMurphy, the character he played in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?

      But at some level, people noticed the phoniness even if they couldn’t articulate exactly what it was. Maybe they just saw me as a shy college freshman or a sophomore who came out of his shell. I feared that my authentic voice was insipid, not entertaining enough, boring, unattractive, and not unique. If I were authentic, I’d be vulnerable, and then if I were rejected again, as I was at home, as I was in fifth grade, then I wouldn’t be able to withstand it, not again. At that point in my life, I was the ultimate chameleon both socially and as a writer.

      I bonded strongly with a few of my college teammates between my performances, when I put the show aside, opened myself up, and became transparent. We came together when we ran hours together slowly enough to converse or sat face-to-face over peanuts and Bud. When I was authentic, we built emotionally-intimate relationships.

      But the rest of the time, I took on a zanier chameleon color—a bit psychedelic—for passion and wildness. I wanted to shock my college buddies and entertain myself. My goal was to create social satire and interesting moments to write about. Looking back, I was doing the “should” thing more than ever, thinking I shouldbe wild in college because this was what college was about; it was my time to do it. My buddies just lived in the moment, whereas I memorialized a fleeting life stage.

      I told my best buddy (we called ourselves the “Two-by-Fours” because we had both slept with four different women and were disgustingly proud of it), “Be a dick,” and he immediately became a performance artist, not so unlike the Merry Pranksters. I got to be Ken Kesey, and he was my Neal Cassady. My friends weren’t my minions, they were my peers; and it felt a whole lot better together on the bus.

      But my buddy acted, played for a while, and then put it behind him, whereas I was a chameleon. I was so ashamed of revealing who I truly was that I projected a false image and changed it depending on my environment, not guided by my own moral compass. The risk of being real and possibly rejected was just too great. I fooled many people. People don’t like to be fooled; sometimes they do hockey checks on you as revenge; sometimes they poison their future wives’ minds against you; usually they just fade out of your life. I even fooled myself; not all of this was conscious. If someone had told me what I was up to, it would have saved me a lot of trouble. But that’s not what people normally do; it’s what psychologists do. But if someone had interpreted my behavior at the time—how it kept people away from me, how I wasn’t always funny and was sometimes cruel—I wouldn’t have heard them; I would have just thought they were “flatliners,” the most boring of people, or haters trying to shove me down into their box. I would’ve resisted and just kept on doing things the way I always did them, the more gonzo the better, letting a few people in, keeping most out. Too often, we just have to learn life lessons experientially. At least, I had to—at least regarding the chameleon stuff.

      I didn’t have a good filter for what should be kept inside and what should be revealed. We all determine this to varying degrees, usually when we’re very young and coached in a safe environment by our caregivers. I thought that only I had weird thoughts, but I hoped those thoughts were weird in a good way, weird like my writing heroes’ thoughts were. My weird thoughts made me want to shock others in formal situations. They highlighted stilted absurdity and societal hypocrisy; they smirked in the faces of suits.

      Today, I understand the value of ritual, formality, and boundaries. Back then, I saw those things as part of the box, which they were, but I thought they were bad and needed Electric Kool-Aid behavior to unmask them. I acted the way I figured that a latent distance-running god and undiscovered literary neohippie should behave. What would Steve Prefontaine do? What would Ken Kesey do? I didn’t yet know myself well enough to do what I should do and just be me—but not at the expense of others. I didn’t yet understand the value of the box; I only saw the value of breaking it down.

      Nobody could articulate what the off-putting issue was. They thought I really was the way I presented myself, just as they were supposed to think. Sometimes they expressed a negative opinion of me or my behavior; then I felt misunderstood and was frustrated over that misunderstanding, yet it was my own fault. What I thought was funny and wild, others sometimes saw as mean and out-of-control. I kind of knew better, but in my press to become more significant, I kind of didn’tknow better. I didn’t know that I wasn’t authentic. I didn’t know that I was a chameleon. Although I explain things here, I’m not excusing them. I knew that pushing limits shocked and alienated some, and not just squares and critics and haters. The thing was, without my persona, I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror. What I saw seemed weak and unattractive. What I saw was someone who should be relegated to the playground corners with the other misfits.

      Looking back today, I see how exhausting it was.

      Other than being “interesting,” I didn’t know at the time exactly what I was doing wrong.

      Now it seems so obvious.

      Not as obvious, unless you’re in the mental health field, is the overlap between everything I’ve just written and borderline personality disorder, which isn’t a coincidence. So much of it’s there: aggression, fear of abandonment, emptiness (boredom), unstable self-image, mood lability, impulsivity, and anger. I have to say that sometimes, I think I was on the very brink of a lifetime of emotional and social disaster. I’m not sure how I avoided a full-blown personality disorder other than aging out of it and working really hard for many years to be better than my possible fate. I’m not in denial; I’ve actually gone down this rabbit hole. I’m normal. I fall in the fat part of the normal curve. Truly. But looking back on my youth is like gazing off a precipice, my toes curled over the cliff face. I could’ve easily fallen off, yet, somehow, I took a step away from the edge. Spiritual people might suggest it’s a “God thing.” Psychologists might suggest that I merely matured physiologically and emotionally; I aged out of adolescence and into young adulthood. I don’t know, but today, in gratitude, I help others step away from edges as well. I go to the corners of the playground, take the hands of the misfits there, and lead them into the fat part of the normal curve.

***

My buddies came up with a nickname for me, “Taco Tim,” because of where I was from and because I ate a lot of New Mexican food. I wanted Taco Tim to be fun, not a dick. At a Halloween party, I wore a long, blond wig that a buddy had stolen and all-white clothes, to which I attached a string, and, ta-da! I was a tampon. That made me the wildest kid at the party. I often wore that wig, and something bad usually happened: spilled beer, angry words, and a near rumble with frat rats or townies. Beer was flung in my face by young women who somehow knew that I’d never strike a female. That wig attracted trouble like my high school letter jacket had. When I stopped wearing the wig, I stopped having as many people aggress against me. My opinion? If you don’t like somebody, simply ignore him. Otherwise, you’re the dick.

      Don’t you wish our grown-up problems were as easily tossed aside as a stolen wig can be?

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